The New York Post
October 18, 2016
To the Iraqi forces that launched a campaign to liberate Mosul and deal ISIS its most serious blow yet: godspeed. To America: Welcome back to Iraq, and let’s hope we get it right this time.
“We will meet soon on the ground of Mosul to celebrate liberation,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed early Monday, announcing the long-awaited start of the battle to free the country’s second-largest city from ISIS.
Capturing Mosul was ISIS’s most valuable victory. In the spring of 2014, after tearing through other parts of Iraq’s Sunni areas, these terrorists took over the city — prompting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its megalomanic leader, to announce a caliphate, an Islamic state that was to grow in territory, fame and influence and defeat the world’s infidels.
Since then, would-be terrorists from as far as Orlando, Fla., have sworn allegiance to the victor of Mosul, which is why defeating it there is so crucial.
ISIS’s victory came about two years after President Obama ordered all US troops out of Iraq. In the face of the enemy, the Iraqi army — armed, trained and funded by America since 2003 to become the best fighting force in the Arab world — collapsed, fleeing the city and abandoning piles of modern US-made weapons.
But ISIS’s ensuing atrocities prompted Obama to quietly return to Iraq, and US-backed Iraqi units now look a bit more promising. Iraq’s counter-terrorism brigades, including the elite Golden Division, will carry most of the Mosul fighting — with American air cover (plus help from the Brits, French, Germans and others).
There’s much to worry about, though.
The United States has wisely conditioned its air support on the exclusion of Iranian-backed Shiite militias from the battlefield. Abadi has agreed: Where we bomb, those militias — loyal to Nouri al-Malaki, prime minister before Abadi, and Tehran’s fave — can’t fight.
But what if Abadi’s special forces aren’t enough to capture and control a city of over 1 million terrorized locals? Especially when ISIS fighters have likely booby-trapped every nook and cranny of the city, and dug deep fighting tunnels under it?
True, independent Kurdish peshmerga fighters are helping. In the early fighting, the Kurds captured several villages northeast of Mosul, as the Iraqi armies moved in from the south. But the Kurds aren’t likely to go deep into Mosul or risk major loses to liberate the city’s Sunnis.
So if the Iraqi army gets bogged down (or if Iran insists), the Shiite militias might well enter the fray.
Sectarian enmities will then reignite, making the rise of some new extremist Sunni threat more likely.
Turkish forces that have been stationed near Mosul may also join the battle. Officially, they’re there to protect Iraq’s Turkmen minority — but Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also detests Iraq’s Abadi. The Turks may itch to show off their prowess — and to stick it to Baghdad while expanding Turkish influence in Iraq.
Then there’s a real fear that Mosul will become an Iraqi version of the horrors of Aleppo. Unlike the Russians, Iranians and regime forces in Syria, US planes won’t target hospitals or schools — but mistakes happen, and ISIS will do its best to encourage them.
Will war-shy Obama then keep his eyes on the prize, defeating ISIS? Will he insist, as he must, on keeping Iran from dominating Iraq’s Sunnis through its proxy Shiite militias? What if Tehran threatens to tear up the president’s beloved nuclear deal?
The answers to those questions depends on whether Obama has learned from one of his worst mistakes. Remember: His premature, hasty withdrawal from Iraq created the divisions that allowed ISIS to take over Mosul in the first place. To avoid a repetition, he may have to accept a deepening American involvement in the battle for Mosul.
Iraqi spokesmen estimate that liberating the city will take up to six months — which leaves the messy Iraq theater as a top foreign-policy crisis for our next president, who’ll need to start handling it minutes after the Jan. 20 inauguration.
Here’s hoping that he or she has learned from all the errors committed by the two previous administrations.
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